Nothing makes me swoon like a good title, so let it be said right off the top: Michael Winter’s fifth novel has a very, very good title. Recognizable but intriguing, it can rattle around the reader’s mind for a long time without giving away all of its secrets.
In this case, however, the title quickly becomes too much of a good thing. As an abstract concept, “minister without portfolio” is an apt description of Henry Hayward, an aimless Newfoundlander who wanders off to the war in Afghanistan to get over a bad breakup, witnesses a friend get killed, and then spends the rest of the book trying to make sense of life back home. The trouble is that it doesn’t stay in the abstract.
Instead, Winter awkwardly puts the phrase in the mouth of more than one character, none of whom pull it off. “Let’s be outlaws,” says Tender, Henry’s soon-to-be deceased childhood friend, early on. “Except for Henry – he’s our minister without portfolio.” Henry asks what that means. Tender’s reply: “You’re not committed to anything but you got a hand in everywhere.” Nobody would say such a thing. It has simply been parachuted in to make a thematic point.
As it happens, the two engines that fuel Henry’s restlessness – his relationship falling apart, and his traumatic stint in Afghanistan – make up only a brief opening segment of the novel. The vast majority of our time is spent back in Newfoundland, where Henry begins a new romance with Tender’s former spouse Martha, which is triply complicated by the fact that Henry may be responsible for his friend getting killed in the first place. The pair also embark on a mission (really, more of a fool’s errand) of figuring out who is the rightful owner of an abandoned house that Henry wants to restore and move into.
There are some vivid scenes. The rigmarole of running a business in small-town Newfoundland is captured with wit and love, as is the patchwork bureaucracy. When Henry asks a bank teller where he might find a justice of the peace, the woman yells over to her coworker, “Is Linda still doing that?” And just as Winter has made use of his real life in past books – the protagonist of his first novel, This All Happened, struggled to piece together notes for a book that would, four years later, become Winter’s own The Big Why – the new novel also pulls from life: in this case, the author’s accidental fall into an industrial garbage incinerator in 2006. Genuine horror overtakes him as the reality of his situation becomes clear. “His lungs felt warm,” Winter writes. “A new shock. He wasn’t going to burn to death: he was cooking.” (He is later rescued, as was Winter himself, by two men who just so happened to be standing nearby.)
But the novel as a whole is unfocused and opaque, in large part due to what seems like an error in perspective. Winter creates a sizable cast of characters, only to then stick us with by far the least interesting one among them. Henry rarely displays any outward signs of heartache or mourning, and Winter’s staccato prose doesn’t let us get very far inside his head. So if his supposedly traumatic experience overseas doesn’t inform the rest of the book, why couldn’t he instead be given the far more compelling personality of, say, the neighbour who’s lost both of his hands in a pipe-fitting accident – and who is so stubborn and/or stoic that, after spilling a bag of nails in a hardware store, he spends the next half an hour using his hooks to pick them up, one at a time?
A more obvious contender for protagonist is Martha, Tender’s former spouse, who soon reveals herself to be pregnant with Tender’s child. There are so many opportunities to plumb around at this all-too-real intersection of grief and new life. Instead, Winter keeps us on the outside, in the process missing his chance to justify some pretty hard-to-read behaviour. At one point Henry recoils while they’re having sex, saying he felt as though Tender were nearby. “But Tender is in the bed with us,” Martha replies. “We’ve said that. He will always be there. Is that something we can live with?”
If that’s meant to be a demonstration of her inner strength of character, we need to see more. Ditto if it’s meant to show her self-delusion. The more likely scenario, unfortunately, is neither: Winter has Martha say this not to illustrate anything at all about her, but to have something about Henry’s own guilt parroted back at him. The real victim ends up having to comfort the sad-sack male hero. It’s a depressing image, but not in the way Winter intends.
In The Big Why, Winter gave us a similar story about building a home in a place where you may not be wanted – and in the painter Rockwell Kent, he gave us a more dynamic and sympathetic protagonist, to boot. Minister Without Portfolio covers much of the same territory, but much less convincingly.
Michael Hingston is the books columnist for the Edmonton Journal. His first novel, The Dilettantes, will be released by Freehand in September.